Chester by-election: is Sunak sunk?

Labour calls prime minister a ‘serial loser’ after Tories’ crushing defeat in Chester

Rishi Sunak
The result ‘should mark the official end of Sunak’s honeymoon’, said one commentator
(Image credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Labour has inflicted a crushing defeat on the Conservatives in the City of Chester by-election, a result the opposition says sends a “clear message” to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about his leadership.

The Chester by-election was triggered by the resignation of the sitting Labour MP Chris Matheson after a Commons inquiry found he had breached sexual misconduct rules.

But Labour won its biggest majority and share of the vote ever in the constituency. Labour candidate Sam Dixon won 17,309 votes, representing 61.22% of the vote share. She increased Matheson’s 6,164 majority to 10,974, while the Conservatives’ share fell from 38% last time to 22.4% in Thursday’s vote.

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The result is the Conservatives’ worst in the constituency since 1832. The Liberal Democrats also underperformed, coming a distant third with 2,368 votes.

The result has given Rishi Sunak a “bloody nose”, the Daily Mail said, and “underlines the scale of his task to remain in office at the next nationwide poll”.

What did the papers say?

“This wasn’t just a bad result for the Conservatives and Rishi Sunak,” said Sky News’ chief political correspondent Jon Craig, “it was a disaster.”

It represents “a terrible start… for Sunak in his first by-election as prime minister, though to be fair it would be harsh to blame him personally for this disaster”, Craig said.

The result should concern the PM, said Nick Tyrone in The Spectator, because Chester is “exactly the sort of bellwether seat that the Tories should either win or be extremely competitive in if they hold any chance of winning the next election”. The Chester by-election “should mark the official end of Sunak’s honeymoon”, he said.

After defeating Conservative candidate and NHS nurse Liz Wardlaw, Dixon said in her victory speech: “Tonight the people of Chester have sent a clear message. They have said Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives no longer have a mandate to govern.”

And shadow work and pensions minister Alison McGovern said that Sunak is already a “serial loser” in an apparent reference to his defeat during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest.

What next?

While he has only been prime minister for just over a month, Sunak is “already facing multiple challenges to his authority from rebel Conservative MPs”, said the Financial Times’s Sebastian Payne.

Tory strategists have earmarked the winter of 2024 as the most likely date for the next general election, which means Sunak has “less than two years to revive the slowing UK economy, improve stretched public services and implement some of the party’s core 2019 manifesto commitments”, Payne said.

Sunak will likely now face “a rolling procession of ‘pop-up’ Tory rebellions”, said Politico’s Annabelle Dickson, with challenges coming the prime minister’s way “on everything from housing policy and onshore wind farms to his stance on China”.

The result may look bad, but it is hard to pin it on Sunak himself, said Chloe Chaplain for i news. “Arguably it is too early into his term for this to be considered a referendum on his premiership, but the result suggests Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is able to be cautiously optimistic,” she wrote.

Regardless of his part in the defeat, Sunak’s time in office “has become a shipwreck”, said John Crace in The Guardian. “Since getting the top job he’s lacked direction. Lacked purpose. His only mission being to survive another day in office.”

All the prime minister can offer now is “a sense of managed decline”, Crace added. “Trying to stumble on to the next election and hoping to minimise the inevitable losses.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.